Foreign Policy Blogs

Egypt Sees Protests A La Tunisia

By Emad Mekay

Thousands of Egyptians are demonstrating across the country as I write this in what increasingly looks like an unprecedented unrest in size and ferocity. The protests saw factory workers, university professors, political activists and even women and teenage girls braving riots police and taking to the streets across the country. Many were chanting against the 82-year old Western-backed President Hosni Mubarak.

What was initially expected to be yet another Cairo day of small protests that police could easily crush is fast turning into massive protests in almost all major towns and cities in the 85-million people Arab nation. There are reports of live shots fired at demonstrations in some cities and towns on top of the usual Egyptian police tactic of tear gas, clubs and water canons. Several injuries have been reported.

In downtown Cairo, I’ve seen young and elderly women taking part in the protests with many of them challenging riots police – face to face. Their sight encouraged some men to do the same. And that was when police showed restraint in the first half of the day.

Later in the day, things turned a bit ugly. Police, clearly surprised by the growing numbers of people who turned out, started to act nervously and started firing tear gas and use water canons. One young man jumped over an armored police vehicle to try to stop the water canon. The scene again encouraged protesters to throw stones at the police.

As the day progressed, police became more violent and tried too be more restrictive. Riots police blocked all entries to downtown Cairo. Several cars were stopped at check points. Protesters say they will sit-in throughout the cold night in Midan Al-Tahrir, the Liberation Square, Cairo’s most central area. The police is issuing an ultimatum for them disperse and to citizens not to take part. Local TV stations are broadcasting the warning non-stop.

The government has already blocked several websites that monitor and report on the unrest minute by minute. The government, which controls all communications here, started blocking Websites starting later in the afternoon as things on the ground heated up and it was clear that many protesters were using the Internet for information., the website of the privately-owned newspaper which often carries articles by opponents of the regime, was blocked. I turned to the site throughout the day for fast developments before it became inaccessible., a website for the opposition daily, Alwafd, was also blocked after it reported the death of one protester. I couldn’t verify if the death report was true. And of course the usual suspects; Twitter has been blocked for hours so far.

The demonstrations are different in many ways than the ones that happened before for the following reasons:

1-They happened in so many cities and towns at the same time including Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, Mahala, Suez, Mansoura, some part of Sinai and elsewhere. The local Al-Mehwar TV station reported just an hour ago that the only areas that didn’t see protests were Luxor, Aswan and the distant Western Desert city of Al-Wadi Al-Gadeed. By some counts, this the largest protest Egypt saw since Mubarak took office in 1981.

2-This the first time I see so many women; young and old, take part. One protester told me that she came to protest after she knew of the demonstrations from a 15 year old “Facebook blogger”. A 30-year old woman in Mahala told me over the phone that she encouraged her husband to “wake up” and go out with her to take part in the protests. She said she only left after she heard shots from the police. “I think they have orders to shoot and kill,” she said over the phone.

3-The protesters are clearly not afraid of the police. Many threw stones. Others sat on the ground to stop armored police cars from advancing against protesters. The police couldn’t scare them away as they used to in the past. This maybe be a result of the Tunisian revolution which eventually toppled the president there.

4-The protesters were chanting against Mubarak himself. In several instances I saw protesters pulling down pictures for Mubarak.

5- Twitter, facebook, mobile phones, blogs and the Internet in general are the real heroes of the protests so far. Young people are shooting videos of the protests and posting it everywhere. This is how they are communicating.

This is clearly a developing story. I’ll blog some more later on with what’s happening. I just hope the government won’t block all access to the Internet. We’ll see

Emad Mekay
Cairo, Egypt